There are rare few games done dirtier than Titanfall 2. Sequel to a risky new IP, doomed by a release sandwiched between Call of Duty and Battlefield, usurped by its own battle royale spin-off, and nigh-unplayable for the last year thanks to an absurd conspiracy of hackers and DDoS attacks, Titanfall 2 was perhaps always destined to be a cult classic.
Of course, you don't get to the cult classic status without being good as hell. And on revisiting Respawn's 2016 mech-n-parkour-'em-up over the winter break, I was reminded just how joyous it is to slide, grapple and wall-run across Titanfall 2's battlefields.
See, when Respawn debuted with the first Titanfall's wall-running soldiers, it tore up the FPS rulebook. The first game might not have set sales records, but when even Call of Duty is nicking your far-future acrobatics, you can confidently say you've made your mark.
Titanfall 2 rightfully built on that foundation with even more expressive movement. Pilots could now skid around with the king of videogame buttslides, maintaining momentum with grappling hooks and pumping their muscles full of gooey green adrenaline. It still takes a bit of work to get yourself going, but once you're in full stride you can clear entire arenas in seconds. It is absolutely joyous.
But Titanfall 2 made one other massive change over its predecessor—and I reckon I'm about to out myself as some kind of miserable contrarian when I reveal where I land on the sequel's much-lauded campaign. Look. Titanfall 2's campaign is fine. Hell, by the standards of FPS campaigns of the time, it's great. But that feels more representative of where FPS stories were at the time than anything particularly special to the game itself.
Don't get me wrong, Titanfall 2's story also does have some killer stand-out setpieces. Everyone remembers 'press F to time-travel', but the Ikea hell-factory and ship-to-ship wall-rides deserve equal shoutouts. The environments are gorgeous, with lush sci-fi skyboxes that rival even Bungie's backdrops, and beating the campaign only takes around six to eight hours.
But for every time-jumping skirmish you have a slog through the jungle, or another truly lacklustre boss fight against a cast of villains that never quite match up as worthy opponents. While the first game's tone was firmly Call of Duty by way of District 9, Titanfall 2 attempts to be more colourful and characterful, giving you an Iron Giant-esque companion and a whole cast of anime villains to square up against.
But those baddies have a real case of Boba Fett syndrome—fan favourites with cool designs who ultimately get maybe a minute or two of actual screentime before being inelegantly killed off by Rifleman Jack Cooper, the most boring man who ever lived.
Here's the thing, for me, the first game might not have had a singleplayer campaign, but it was trying some wildly interesting stuff when it came to telling story through multiplayer. A playlist of missions ran you through a fairly rote sci-fi story, experiencing a war from both sides. You'd be introduced to the stakes of a match through short first-person vignettes, and maps would shift as they developed, skies exploding as fleets warped in and orbital cannons blasting carriers out of orbit.
Listen, Titanfall wasn't winning any Hugo awards with its writing. But it felt bold and experimental, a precursor to the kinds of seasonal storytelling that would define later live-service games like Fortnite or Respawn's own Apex Legends. Titanfall 2 is ultimately a fine singleplayer story—but it rarely surprises and doesn't give its smartest ideas time to breath. Besides, it's in multiplayer where the wall-running sequel really gets to stretch its legs.
Fall and rise
When I reinstalled Titanfall 2 at the start of December, it was widely considered unplayable online. The rampant server attacks that have plagued Titanfall for years now batter its sequel, with attacks even briefly spilling over to Apex last year.
Fortunately, Titanfall 2 got an early Christmas present from its most die-hard fans. In mid-December a modded server browser dubbed Northstar appeared, letting players circumvent matchmaking to connect directly to player-run servers. The idea being that while a centralised matchmaking server is prone to DDoS attacks, custom server owners can simply spin up new games on the fly.
Titanfall 2 is maybe the only game in recent memory to make the jump from matchmaking to a classic server browser—and not only has it saved the game's online community, but it's fundamentally changed how Titanfall 2 is even played.
Server browsers have always offered communities within communities, with each server offering its own unique twist on the main game. Think about Team Fortress 2, which spawned achievement-farming idle servers, randomised weapon mods, and notoriously never-ending games of CTF on 2Fort on top of your usual 'vanilla' servers.
Titanfall hasn't gotten quite so crazy just yet, but that spirit of weird and wonderful micro-communities is out in full force. There are servers to play standard Pilot vs Pilot and Skirmish, sure. But some servers will crank up air acceleration to 9,000% to give you outrageous manoeuvrability, while others will give pilots the option to carry around outlandish, oversized Titan weapons.
At time of writing, standout modes like Attrition and Bounty Hunt don't work (Northstar's developers haven't been able to crack AI and pathfinding). But in their place the community has spun up brand new modes. Genre classics like Gun Game and Infection join the ammunition-scarce One In The Chamber. But the real star is the absurd spectacle of Fastball.
Fastball sports what may be the coolest introduction to any multiplayer match, ever, with each round beginning with campaign big boy BT-7274 yeeting your player into the arena. Both teams then scramble to eliminate each other, with teammates only respawning if you can clutch one of three hackable panels placed in the map. It is fast, it is chaotic, it is brutal, and it is everything I adore about Titanfall 2.
All of this, and Northstar is still only in its first month or two of existence. There's no telling how the modding community will reshape Titanfall 2 in the coming months or years.
Getting AI working won't just let Northstar resurrect Attrition, but create entirely new modes with a toolkit of grunts and robots and auto-piloted Titans. Custom skins are already everywhere, but what about custom player models or entirely new maps? What happens when your traditional rounds of Pilot vs Pilot on Angel City are nestled next to servers dumping anime-flavoured Titan models onto a painstaking recreation of Counter-Strike's Dust2,
I've a strong sense that, as time goes on, Titanfall 2 will become unrecognisable. But, it's an important step for preservation. Live games, more than any other, are at great risk of being lost to history as soon as they're no longer profitable. Whether through lack of will or resources, Respawn has been unable to support its cult shooter, and as a centralised online game the lights were always going to go out eventually.
But in taking over control of the game's future, Northstar has ensured that people will be able to play one of the past decade's best shooters for years, maybe even decades to come. Circumstance might well have doomed Titanfall 2 to obscurity over the past five years. But thanks to Northstar, modders have ensured that this phenomenal shooter has a strong future.